At the ‘Nightmare Alley,’ the Circus Gets Pretty Dark

1 Comment

Nightmare Alley (CREDIT: Kerry Hayes/20th Century Studios)

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, David Straitharn, Holt McCallany, Mark Povinelli, Mary Steenburgen, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Beaver

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Running Time: 150 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Gunfire and a Little Hanky Panky

Release Date: December 17, 2021 (Theaters)

If you can’t trust circus folk, who can you trust? Actually, if Nightmare Alley is to be believed, carnies are the only people who can be believed (well, most of them anyway). It’s everyone else who’s trying to pull one over on you. This movie is two and a half hours long, which is to say: it takes Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle way too long to realize the truth about Truth. That’s probably because he’s fooling himself.

The movie itself is pulling a trick on us as well. Considering its spooky title, and its writer-director, we’re primed for some horror, or at least something supernatural. But instead it’s a full-on noir thriller, with all the moral prisons, femmes fatales, and cigarettes to prove it. We first meet Stanton burning away his past, quite literally. Then he wanders into the local big tent, and it’s unclear if he actually has any plans for anything at this moment. Only later do his machinations come to the fore. He gets roped into a job, which at first pays him a mere 50 cents (it would have been a dollar if he hadn’t snuck into the geek show), but then that’s followed up by steadier employment at the next town, and soon enough he’s one of the top mentalists around. That trajectory eventually leads to him teaming up with a psychologist (Cate Blanchett) for a con to bilk some big, big money out of a rich man (Richard Jenkins) who’s overcome by Stan’s promises that he can commune with the dead. But of course, there’s enough doubt and double-crossing in the air for everything to go sideways.

By the end of the whole plot, Stan essentially circles back to his original destitute and anonymous status quo. I was struck by both the futility and durability of his con man nature. The Universe, or the Fates, or God or whatever, or simply the randomness of existence has decided that his deception can go only so far. And while his reach exceeding his grasp might send him down to rock bottom, he’ll find a way to survive in the gutter if he has to. But why not do it a little differently? If Stan were a real person, and he were my friend, I would remind him that he seems happiest when he’s just hanging out with the circus crew. He found a family, but the genre that he lives in has ensured that he’s a nowhere man who’s never fully at home anywhere.

Nightmare Alley is Recommended If You Like: Hucksters, Snow, Trenchcoats, Biting heads off chickens

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Cold Reads

This Is a Movie Review: Indie Rom-Coms Continue Chugging Along with Demetri Martin’s ‘Dean’

Leave a comment

This review was originally posted on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Rory Scovel, Mary Steenburgen

Director: Demetri Martin

Running Time: 87 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Little Bit of Language, A Little Bit of Relations

Release Date: June 2, 2017 (Limited)

If you look at Demetri Martin – the moptopped, artistically inclined comedian whose Wikipedia page once listed Socrates as an influence – and think “romantic comedy lead,” then chances are that you and I would get along famously. And wouldn’t you know it, we now have the perfect topic to discuss: Dean, a minor-key charmer serving as Martin’s directorial debut.

Martin plays the title character, a Brooklyn illustrator living through with the fallout of his mother’s death and a breakup with his ex-fiancée (Christine Woods). Instead of dealing with all that, he flies out to Los Angeles to meet with an ad agency interested in using his drawings. Alas, the pitch and the hipster-bro vibe put him off. (SNL’s Beck Bennett is perfect as the exec who remains on his office treadmill the entire scene.) At this point, Dean really should head back home and sort out matters with his father (Kevin Kline), who is eager to sell their house. But he finds himself too entranced by La La Land to head home, because he meets this girl named Nicky, and she is played by Gillian Jacobs, a Pittsburgh native who often inhabits West Coast gals who inadvertently knock the lead characters out of their stupors and makes it look effortless (it’s not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl thing, it’s a chill vibe thing).

Spoiler alert: this budding romance does not exactly end happily. But that does not mean there is no satisfying resolution to be had. The reason the title is Dean as opposed to “Dean & Nicky” or “Millennial Love Story” is because it is about the individual. (Dad, also gets his own storyline, a suitably engaging romance with his realtor, played by Mary Steenburgen.) There are plenty of stories about looking for love and growing up, and this one is hardly groundbreaking. But they keep being told because new storytellers keep creeping towards their thirties and forties. What we as viewers humbly request of them along the way is that they find honesty and individuality in their voice. And in the guise of Dean, I am happy to hear from Demetri Martin has to say.

Dean is Recommended If You Like: Demetri Martin’s illustrations, (500) Days of SummerCeleste and Jesse Forever

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Pubic Clown Wigs